Capers are the unopened green flower buds of the Capparis spinosa (Capparidaceae – caper family – closely related to the cabbage family), a wild and cultivated bush that is grown mainly in Mediterranean countries (southern France, Italy, and Algeria) and also in California.

Manual labor is required to gather capers, for the buds must be picked each morning just as they reach the proper size. After the buds are picked, they are usually sun-dried, then pickled in a vinegar brine.

Capers can range in size from that of a tiny peppercorn (the petite variety from southern France, considered the finest) to some as large as the tip of your little finger (from Italy).

Capers generally come in brine but can also be found salted and sold in bulk. Either way, rinse before using to flush away as much salt as possible.

The taste is slightly astringent and pungent, and they can lend piquancy to many sauces and condiments; they can also be used as a garnish for meat and vegetable dishes.

Where do capers come from?

Although they are grown throughout the Mediterranean as well as parts of Africa and Asia, the finest capers are said to be the tiny nonpareille (meaning ‘without peer’) that come from southern France. Capers range in size from this especially small variety to much larger ones from Italy. Morocco is the largest commercial producer today.

A new variety of capers from Spain is emerging on the market as “caperberries.” The smaller the better has long been a mantra with capers but these caperberries are the size of olives. Packed with the stem intact, they are an elegant addition to a buffet with roasted fowl or poached fish.

How do I use capers?

Capers can be used in a variety of sauces, salads and meat or fish dishes. They lend a mild peppery, pickled taste when added to a recipe or served along side as a garnish.

You should rinse capers before using to wash away any saltiness. You may wish to coarsely chop the larger varieties but this really isn’t necessary.

Experiment with capers in their various sizes and in different recipes to decide what you like the best. You might add them to tuna salad or try sprinkling a few capers on your next pizza. Or add them to a chunky tomato sauce and serve it over fish.

Check the indexes of your cookbooks for other uses. Look especially for tapenade, a pungent spread made of capers, olives and anchovies. Also look for recipes that call for capers such as mustard sauces or mayonnaise variations.

Or try the following recipe inspired by a salad I had at the local Macaroni Grill. It’s a great combination that will improve after a day or two in the refrigerator, if it lasts that long.

Medicinal uses:

In Greek popular medicine a herbal tea made of caper root and young shoots is considered to be beneficial against rheumatic. Dioscoride (MM 2.204t) also provides instructions on the use of sprouts, roots, leaves and seeds in the treatment of strangury and inflammation.

False Caper Warning – Poisonous:

If you are planning to preserve capers from your own garden, first be absolutely certain it is a true caper plant. Euphorbia lathyris, common name caper spurge, is a poisonous plant with buds that are often confused as capers.

Ingestion of caper spurge buds can cause burning of the mouth, nausea, paleness, irregular pulse, dizziness, delirium and fainting. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for assistance in identifying your plant.

If you do have a true caper plant, make homemade capers using this recipe as a guideline. Harvest flower buds before they begin to show any color prior to opening. If you want salt-free capers, pickle them in your choice of vinegar.

Sources: Hub UK, Home Cooking

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